George Oppen's Poetics of the Commonplace

by Xavier Kalck (Author)
©2017 Monographs XXII, 210 Pages


Few poets have been as adamant about the uselessness of their art in the face of history as American poet George Oppen (1908–1984), and yet, few poets have been as viscerally convinced of the important role of the poem in restoring meaning to our words. Oppen came to maturity between two world wars, at the time of the Depression, and gave up poetry just when he had embraced it. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, his new work seemed to many poets and critics to represent the epitome of poetic virtue in dark times. Whereas Oppen wrote of the lost sense of the commonplace, his readers found in his poetry the means to reclaim the poet’s role within the community.
George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Copyright Credits
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction: In the Land of Uz
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter One: Structures of Meaning
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Rhythmic Obligations
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Three: That Common Wealth of Parlance
  • References
  • Chapter Four: The Image-Statement
  • References
  • Chapter Five: A Dream of Politics
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Six: A Realist Poetry
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: Germane Questions, German Concepts
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Unethical Criticism
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: Simple and Primitive: History’s Children
  • Note
  • References
  • Conclusion: To Heal the Diction
  • Note
  • References
  • Index

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Monographs devoted to a single author are often structured around a roughly linear chronology which follows the production of the work and its reception—a life’s work and the work’s life—leaving the reader with little by way of justification beyond the relevance of said author, whether it was meant to be demonstrated, questioned, or whether relevance must quite simply be assumed. Multiauthor monographs may seem to present something a little different, yet they too will often prove equally linear, if in a slightly subtler way, by imposing the linearity of a conceptual framework on a reluctant variety of texts and contexts. This book hopes to offer an alternative; however, even if successful, its outline may come across as somewhat unsettling. Although this is a single author monograph, which focuses on the reception of the work of George Oppen, it is not essentially concerned with historiography. This book is an empirical investigation into what literary criticism can hope to achieve and into the fabric, and fabrications, of literary knowledge—how it is made, assembled, and why it sometimes tells a lie. I have therefore chosen to present this exploration as such, with its occasional digressions and repetitions, instead of packaging my findings into more readily digestible precepts. If my reader is kind and patient enough, I firmly believe this explicitly experimental method will prove most adequate for a study devoted to issues of methodology. For methodology is not only a crucial aspect of this book, it is the very subject of this book. What “the commonplace” means for Oppen’s ← vii | viii → poetics and how this translates into a common awareness of a shared history is a question that cannot be answered by literary critics unless the commonplaces that make up the critical consensus are also discussed. I will go as far as to say that this analogy is inherent in Oppen’s own practice and in the poetic goals he set for himself, that require critics to engage with his work from the communal perspective of a common language, which puts great pressure on the truthfulness of one’s own critical discourse. I insist on the matter because I must address the perhaps unusually critical slant of this piece of literary criticism, which could lead some to believe that my remarks are at times directed ad hominem. They are not. When I question specific positions and specific critical beliefs, I aim at clarifying these positions and beliefs as objectively as possible for the sake of methodological progress, and not in the name of a competing school, coterie, theory, or out of personal preference. I can only hope that my carefully detailed close readings of the secondary sources, which make up a large part of my primary sources, will testify to the integrity of my endeavor.

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I am immensely grateful to Michael Heller for his time and kind notes, and to Hélène Aji and Denis Lagae-Devoldère for their precious advice. Warm thanks are due to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who encouraged me to revise and improve the initial manuscript. This book would not be without the support of Elisabeth Angel-Perez, head of the VALE research center at Paris-Sorbonne University, and the help of the Paris-Sorbonne University commission for research.

Copyright Credits

By George Oppen, from NEW COLLECTED POEMS, copyright ©1934 by the Objectivist Press, copyright ©1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981 by George Oppen, copyright ©1985, 2002, 2008 by Linda Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

“Eighth Elegy” By Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by J. B. Leishman, from POSSIBILITY OF BEING, copyright ©1977 by New Directions Publishing Corp. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Fragile & Lucid (1975) in Poems & (Lewes, Allardyce Book ABP, 2012) Copyright © Anthony Barnett 1975, 2012, and Oppen’s letter to Anthony Barnett of March 12, 1973, courtesy Anthony Barnett.

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ON DuPlessis, Rachel Blau and Quartermain, Peter, eds. 1999. The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics. Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press.

MP Hatlen, Burton, ed. 1981. George Oppen: Man and Poet. Orono: National Poetry Foundation.

FM Nicholls, Peter. 2007. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NCP Oppen, George. 2002. New Collected Poems. Edited by Michael Davidson. New York: New Directions.

CP Oppen, George. 1975. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions.

SP Oppen, George. 2007. Selected Prose, Daybooks, And Papers. Edited by Stephen Cope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

SL Oppen, George. 1990. Selected Letters of George Oppen. Edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

ML Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1979.

TP Shoemaker, Steve, ed. Thinking Poetics. Essays on George Oppen. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.

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In the Land of Uz

It seems to me I know some essential things that Williams, Pound, Stevens never knew.

—SL 181

Are you interested in commonplaces? If so, you know that some commonplaces are trivial trite truisms, every-day stock-phrases, barely one step away for full-blown prejudice, while others are generally accepted statements, notable examples of widely shared opinions about which a community has reached a consensus. Once, they might be written down in what used to be called a book of common places, or a commonplace book. For commonness, like ordinariness, or plainness, evokes all at once the quality of being undistinguished and democratic. What one calls common may be vulgar, coarse, second-rate, it may also be elementary, familiar, something we all share—sometimes it is both. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, that ambiguity was celebrated by Walt Whitman:

The commonplace I sing;

How cheap is health! how cheap nobility!

Abstinence, no falsehood, no gluttony, lust;

The open air I sing, freedom, toleration,

(take here the mainest lesson—less from books—less from the schools,) ← xiii | xiv →

The common day and night—the common earth and waters,

Your farm—your work, trade, occupation,

The democratic wisdom underneath, like solid ground for all.

(Whitman 1982, 651)1


XXII, 210
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXII, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Xavier Kalck (Author)

Xavier Kalck is Associate Professor at Paris-Sorbonne University, where he received his PhD in Objectivist poetics. He is the author of Muted Strings: Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (2015). He also edited Anthony Barnett’s Miscanthus: Selected & New Poems (2005).


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234 pages